OAKLAND, Calif. – There is no perfect explanation for the Oakland A’s as champions of the American League West, having run the twice-defending AL champions off the field on Wednesday afternoon in this old, dark, creepy stadium.
So, you go for the metaphor.
The celebration had wound down toward something like sanity. They’d sent the Texas Rangers into the most frightening game in sports, three hours that will validate 162 games of work, or not. They’d come back from 13 games over three months, from five games over nine days.
The economical, anonymous, ratty-assed A’s had done all this. On Wednesday they went down 5-1 in the game that might determine the rest of their October, then scored the next 11 runs, and they drank to that. They drank to themselves, whoever they are, and they filled their clubhouse with cigar smoke, and they tried not to look at the guy running around in the leopard bikini underwear.
And along came Jonny Gomes, who, at 31, seems ancient in a place where 19 rookies have come through, 15 of them still on the roster. He wore a bright yellow robe with his name across the back like a boxer, because of course he did. He came upon a gentleman standing sedately off to the side. This gentleman was dry and minding his own business in a room where everyone’s business was everyone else’s business.
So Gomes pulled a fresh beer from a tub of ice.
“Check this out,” he said.
Gomes placed the beer on the floor between the gentleman’s shoes. The gentleman stared curiously down at the beer and then at Gomes crouched beside it. His eyebrow wrinkled. Gomes squeezed the beer can as hard as he could.
The cold and golden liquid shot straight up, drenching the gentleman’s pants from front belt buckle to back belt loop. At which point the gentleman howled. He left the floor in the way a grasshopper does a branch, with no discernible flex or preparation, like gravity had momentarily released him.
When he landed in that bowlegged way people do when something terrible has occurred in their inseam region. He spread his hands, then gazed upon his dripping pants, then lifted his eyes to meet Gomes’.
“What the …” was all that came out.
Gomes squealed with delight, the clubhouse denizens roared with laughter, and Gomes padded away, the tail of his yellow robe chasing him.
Here’s the metaphor.
“That,” Gomes said, “is called a shocker. That’s a shocker right there.”
Those are the A’s.
From nowhere – other than perhaps Billy Beane’s imagination – came the A’s. From 88 losses last season. From predictions of the same, at best, for this one. From veteran starters being lost to injury or drug suspension, from an offense that batted .238 for the entire season, from a handful of trades that appeared more suited to easing owner Lew Wolff’s financial burden than winning championships.
The A’s finished the season with five rookies in their starting rotation. Rookie pitchers combined for 54 wins. Rookie hitters combined for 56 home runs. Both happened again Wednesday afternoon. You know what general managers do at the ends of seasons that lean that heavily on that many rookies? They beg for their jobs.
Generally, they don’t stand in an office off to the side of a clubhouse awash in glee. While wearing shorts and flip-flops. With some kind of pie frosting covering their faces and necks.
Looked good on Billy Beane, though.
Along the corridor leading to that office, framed magazine covers lined one wall. Reggie was up there, a bunch of times. McGwire. Eckersley. Blue. Rickey. Canseco. Giambi. They were the A’s, household names who played and won big games. Beane has won with Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp and Brandon Moss. Tommy Milone won 13 games and so did Jarrod Parker, whom Beane did not recognize the first time they crossed paths. On Wednesday, Derek Norris homered to put the game away. And Evan Scribner, Jerry Blevins, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour combined to shut out the Rangers – the league’s most offensively ferocious team – for 6 1/3 innings after rookie A.J. Griffin proved a tad over-amped.
“We set out to create a team whose future was better than its past,” Beane said. “In the process, we made a team for the present.”
Told he stood amid what most would consider a surreal event, Beane grinned.
“Listen,” he said, “after 162 games you’re not a Cinderella team. Surprises are in May. Surprises aren’t on October third.”
Indeed, the A’s won 94 games, are the league’s second seed, will open the playoffs Saturday in Detroit and will do so with what is statistically the best remaining pitching staff in the AL. Only the Tampa Bay Rays were better in the regular season. They arrive with baseball’s second-lowest payroll, and with a resume that says they are the fifth team ever to come from as many as 13 games back to win a pennant or division and the first to do it when trailing by five games with fewer than 10 games remaining.
If all of that sounds like a team that spent maybe a single day all season alone in first place, well, that’s the A’s, too. That day was Wednesday.
“The timing was great,” manager Bob Melvin said with a wry smile.
Ask around the ballpark about what has made the A’s, and Melvin’s name comes up quite a bit. Well-liked, user friendly, local-grown and familiar with young teams and uphill climbs, Melvin has pushed some and ridden along some, and has identified the moments when to push and when to ride.
“You gotta give this man some credit,” said Josh Donaldson, the third baseman who had two hits and scored two runs in Game 162.
When Melvin had to go get young Griffin in just the third inning, and the game looked as if it had gotten away, he returned to the dugout with a message. These are the moments of pitcher-payback for all that foul territory here, because the walk from public mess to dugout security takes forever. By the time a beaten man reaches the top stop, the sympathy cheers have tended to die out.
So out went Griffin, and Melvin followed.
“Hey,” he announced upon his arrival, “we’re going to come back.”
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That’s what managers say when the division title is on the line and the deficit is four runs. But, apparently, the A’s found that somewhat inspirational.
“You gotta believe that,” Donaldson said.
About 15 minutes later the Rangers’ starter – veteran Ryan Dempster – was making the same trek, but in the opposite direction. The A’s batted 10 in the fourth inning, took a 7-5 lead, kept hitting, watched the battle-hardened Rangers go to pieces, and then mobbed each other when Crisp caught Michael Young’s fly ball in center field.
They’d built it together, improbably. They’d played to the final inch of a regular season that was never supposed to happen. Given a chance, they won their last six games, eight of their last nine, and took it to the Rangers over three days here. Given the chance, they went ahead and won the stinkin’ division.
“You know,” Melvin said, “pretty amazing.”
Not just amazing. Shocking.
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